Social Evolution Forum

In his target article Whitehouse describes a fascinating and extremely worthwhile program of research. We understand that this research is in its early stages, and so we are not too concerned that at the moment, his exposition of it raises many more questions for us than it answers. We offer up these questions, not really as criticisms, but more to help him communicate the value of his project by attempting to answer them in the future.

1. How prevalent is identity fusion?
The concept of identity fusion is introduced without any data (either here or – less forgivably – in the fuller treatment of the concept by Swann, Jetten, Gómez, Whitehouse, & Bastian, 2012) on how common a phenomenon it is, whether it takes place equally in men and women, the age at which it first takes place, etc. Without such data it is impossible to draw any conclusions on…

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Cultural Group Selection in Phase Transition

Made a comment on Peter Turchin’s blog post about cultural group selection. I think he has done some fascinating work, and I am quite envious of the people at the Frankfurt meeting (some of whom are my friends) who got to meet him!

Social Evolution Forum

I am writing this in Frankfurt, where we have just concluded a week-long meeting on cultural evolution. I was hoping to write about it earlier, but this meeting has been so intense that I literally could not find a couple of hours to put my impressions on paper (or computer screen). The meeting was organized by Strüngmann Forum. There are no talks. Instead some participants write position papers that serve as a basis for discussions (mine was on the evolutionary transition from small-scale to large-scale societies, naturally). During a typical conference there are always talks that are less interesting, and that gives one the opportunity to write something, but not in this one.

Most discussions were within four subgroups, meeting separately, although there also was plenty of opportunity to attend other groups. My group focused on the evolution of small-scale and large-scale societies in humans. We had a developmental psychologist…

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The extended evolutionary synthesis and the role of soft inheritance in evolution

Last month, Tom Dickins and Qazi Rahman published a provocative review article with the above title in Proc R Soc B (hat tip Emma Cohen):

I made a rather longwinded comment about the article on Emma’s Facebook page, which I thought it might be better to post here…

From a quick skim of the paper I find it a bit polemical. The argument is persuasive as far as it goes. I like the idea of “developmental calibration” (neat term). But the abstract and introduction seem much more ambitious than what they actually show in the paper. I just don’t see how demonstrating that epigenetic effects and learning biases can be adaptive in terms of an individual’s inclusive fitness invalidates the whole idea of “soft inheritance”.

Two observations:

(i) The article is really about epigenetics rather than soft inheritance more generally. They highlight niche construction in the abstract and introduction, but only use the term once after that, in their discussion of Bolhuis et al. in Section 4. Unless I missed it, nowhere do they directly address the key insight of niche constructionism, which is that genes can causally influence the environment as well as vice versa. The implication of this insight is that natural selection is a dynamic system: the idea that information flows only downstream, from environment to genotype to phenotype, is a useful fiction that (like Newtonian physics) may approximate 99% of reality, but breaks down under extreme circumstances – i.e. when animals evolve complex enough behaviour to change their environment radically. In these circumstances, does it make sense any more to speak of “maximising fitness”, since fitness is always relative to a given environment? Is the ability to change one’s environment part of one’s fitness? I would think it makes more sense to see things in terms of a fitness landscape with attractors dotted around it. I have no idea how to flesh that out theoretically, but I get the sense that the modern synthesis does break down a bit there.

(An aside about fitness: To be honest, the phrase “maximising fitness” gets my hackles up at the best of times. I tend to think of evolution as a deeply historical, stochastic process, and this phrase just seems like an abstraction too far to me. I don’t think I’m the only one… How does one know what the maximum fitness is in a given environment and for given developmental constraints? And as Emma pointed out, the maximum will vary wildly as the environment varies anyway. So maybe the phrase makes as much sense with niche construction as it ever does. I guess my intuition is just that allowing genes to feed back into the environment makes the system truly dynamic. And there is an important difference between viewing behaviour as an extended phenotype – as I suppose Dickins & Rahman do – and viewing it as niche construction, which is that niche construction affects all members of a community, whereas conceptually, an extended phenotype is likely to be seen as affecting only the bearers of a particular genotype. Maybe that distinction needs to be highlighted more, I don’t know: I’ve never seen it made before, but then I feel a bit out of my depth here … Sometimes I wish I had a biology degree!)

(ii) Section 5 mainly talks about rats. Despite the fact that they criticise Bolhuis et al.’s argument about human brain evolution, nowhere do they acknowledge the point that a human mind is qualitatively different from a rat mind. As Dawkins noted back in the 70s (and probably others before him) humans are different because we have symbolic cultural systems (e.g. language) that are replicated by exact imitation. This is a parallel evolutionary system, a form of “soft inheritance” that must interact with “hard inheritance” in conceptually very problematic ways. Yes, niche construction might be a footnote if we looked only at the rest of the animal kingdom, but one of the most exciting things about the idea – for me at least! – is that it provides a really nice way to think about how human culture may on the one hand be rooted in non-human social learning – since other animals practise ‘primitive’ forms of niche construction – while on the other hand taking things to a whole new level in terms of our ability to impact our environment. Dickins & Rahman’s focus on epigenetics, in this article, leaves that appeal completely intact, in my mind.

Really interested  in getting a proper discussion going about this, particularly from people who have the biological training that I lack!

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From Tattling to Gossip: The Evolution and Development of Indirect Aggression

Just had an abstract proposal accepted for a special issue of Evolutionary Psychology on “Evolutionary Developmental Psychology” – see It still has to go through peer review (submission deadline is 1st September) but I’m very excited about this because (a) it combines my main teaching interests next year (I’m doing a module on dev psych and an optional one on evol psych), and (b) it means I can integrate my PhD results on preschoolers’ tattling with my postdoctoral work on preadolescents’ conflicts, using my own theoretical framework.

From Tattling to Gossip: The Evolution and Development of Indirect Aggression

Adult humans are characterized by remarkably low rates of intra-group physical aggression, relative to other primates and social carnivores, contributing to our ability to live in large cooperative groups. A key ultimate mechanism supporting this adaptation is indirect reciprocity, and a key proximate mechanism relating to this is indirect aggression: the diversion of aggressive impulses into verbal attacks on someone’s reputation, made to a third party. In this article I trace the developmental processes by which aggressive impulses are trained into increasingly indirect pathways. Two major transitions are postulated: firstly during early childhood, when early forms of indirect aggression appear and direct aggression becomes increasingly inhibited; and secondly during early adolescence, when conceptions of social identity change and overt reporting of offences to authority figures outside the peer group becomes less desirable.
From the age of 2–3, children show a tendency to tattle: they overtly report normative transgressions by puppets in experimental settings, by siblings at home, and by peers at preschool. Tattling correlates with standard measures of indirect aggression, and it is noteworthy that measures of ‘indirect’ aggression among preschoolers focus on overt verbalizations, such as threatening not to invite another child to one’s birthday party. As children grow older, they gradually tattle less, and eventually judge it as appropriate only for serious transgressions: in adolescence, those who tattle may be socially derogated, just as adult whistleblowers are ostracized by their in-groups. Measures of indirect aggression among adolescents focus on more covert behaviour such as negative gossip. I argue that this is because adolescence is associated with a realignment of social identity, caused ultimately by new ontogenetic adaptations for mate selection. As children grow older, building reputation within the peer group becomes more important, and relying on adult intervention is no longer an adaptive strategy.

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EHBEA abstract

It turns out I can’t make it to EHBEA 2012, so I thought I’d post the abstract of the talk I was going to give. Please contact me if you’re interested in finding out more about this study 🙂

Explaining gender differences in children’s accounts of interpersonal conflict: Evidence from three European countries

Gordon P. D. Ingram, Interactions Lab, University of Bath


Evolutionary theory predicts several gender differences in interpersonal conflict, which should be present at least from early adolescence. It was investigated whether these were present in preadolescent children’s own accounts of conflicts that they had experienced. Gender differences were predicted in the frequency of reports of physically aggressive responses, anger, sadness, relationship-based competition, skill-based competition, and reconciliation. Since these differences were predicted to be culturally invariant, children from three different countries were assessed.


132 children (aged 9­­–12) in the UK, Portugal and Greece were interviewed about conflicts that they had personally experienced. Interviews were fully transcribed and coded for the six dependent variables listed above. Aggressiveness, victimization frequency and vocabulary level were controlled for using standard questionnaires, and entered as covariates in a logistic regression.


Chi-square analyses indicated that for children from all countries, as predicted, girls were less likely to respond to conflict with physical aggression, more likely to engage in conflicts over friendship alliances, and less likely to engage in conflict over formal sports or games. Predicted differences in anger, sadness and reconciliation were supported only for UK children. Logistic regression showed that the gender effect on physically aggressive responses was mediated by general aggressiveness. Other effects were present even when including control variables.


The gender effect on physical aggression has a strong evolutionary rationale, since remaining free from injury is important for rearing offspring. Differences in skill-based and relationship-based competition were weaker and more variable, suggesting that they included components of culture and/or personality. Differences in the emotions aroused by conflict and in the ability to resolve conflicts effectively seemed highly culturally specific. 


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Infants’ sense of inequality

Inequality has been much in the news recently with the Occupy protests, with which I have a great deal of sympathy:

It has often been argued that people (and even capuchin monkeys!) have an innate sense of fairness, in that they prefer resources to be distributed equally rather than unequally in experimental situations. Jonah Lehrer at Wired Science goes over some of the science behind this in a good recent blog post. But he doesn’t include any developmental evidence. Two new studies reveal that by 15 months, infants are already sensitive to how resources are distributed.

In the first study, published in Developmental Science by Alessandra Geraci and Luca Surian from the University of Trento, 12-18-month-old infants watched two animated characters taking turns to distribute two tokens to two other characters: either one token each, or both to one character. Subsequently, infants looked longer at animations where a chicken (which had observed the distribution of the tokens) approached the “fair” distributor than at animations where they approached the “unfair” one. The authors interpret this as implying that the infants preferred this scenario (approaching the fair distributor) – though it has to be pointed out that if the reverse pattern had been found, they might have interpreted this as showing surprise that the chicken would approach the unfair distributor (a common failing of this sort of “preferential looking” paradigm!). A more solid finding (in my view) was that when given pictures of the two distributors’ characters to play with, infants preferred to take the picture of the fair distributor.

A similar experimental design with similarly aged infants, recently published in PLoS One, obtained rather orthogonal results. Marco Schmidt (of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology) and Jessica Sommerville (of the University of Washington) also showed 15-month-old infants a video of a character doling out equal or unequal amounts of milk or cookies to two other characters (see diagran below):

This time, the infants looked longer (on average) at the “unfair” outcome, which (the authors argue) implies that they were surprised by it (see what I mean about the selective interpretation of preferential looking results). Geraci and Surian, by contrast, had found no difference in looking times between the fair and unfair outcomes – just in looking times for the chicken’s approach to the other characters. Unfortunately, Schmidt and Sommerville did not test whether children preferred to play with the fair or the unfair distributor. But they did look at the children’s own sharing behaviour, in terms of whether they gave a play partner a preferred or a less preferred toy. They found that those children who looked longer at the unfair outcome (i.e., were more surprised by it) were more likely to give their partner their preferred toy; while those who looked longer at the fair outcome were more likely to hand over the less appealing toy. This is a nice little addition to the experiment, since it hints at how personality differences affect attitudes to fairness, even so early in life (I complained in a previous post about how psychologists too often interpret quite small mean differences between groups/trials, driven by a minority of participants, as indicating universal psychological principles).

So what can we say from all this about infants’ sense of fairness? Both pairs of authors argue that their results show that a concern with equality starts very early – much earlier than in the classical theories of Piaget and Kohlberg (who thought that it only appeared with the onset of middle childhood, around age 6-7). But taken together, their results are less supportive of this argument than when considered separately. The problem is that if infants looked longer at the unfair outcome in Schmidt & Sommerville’s experiment because they were surprised by it, then surely in Geraci & Surian’s experiment their longer looking times when the chicken approached the fair distributor should also indicate surprise.

Moreover, Schmidt & Sommerville undermine the first part of their experiment when they highlight, in the second part, that almost half of their participants looked longer at the fair outcome! Such a pattern of results hardly supports a simplistic interpretation in terms of a general preference for fairness. The strongest finding from these two experiments is perhaps that 14 out of 20 16-month-old infants in Geraci & Surian’s study preferred to play with the fair distributor (3 preferred the unfair distributor and 3 failed to choose). As I say, it was a pity that this was not replicated in the other experiment, as manual choice seems a more reliable way of assessing preference than looking times.

So while I would love to say that infants have an innate preference for fair distribution of resources, the evidence is just not conclusive at this stage. The most that we can say is that infants are sensitive to the proportions in which resources are distributed (at 15 months but not at 10 months). The theories of Piaget and Kohlberg that true norms of equality do not arise until a few years later may be more intact than the authors imply in their Discussion sections.

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Does gossip really make people less likeable?

Photograph by kamshots

For anyone interested in gossip, there was a little study published by Sally Farley a few days ago in the European Journal of Social Psychology (here are links to the original article and the blog post where I found it). She divided her student participants into groups, and asked each group to think about someone they knew who either talked about absent people a lot or infrequently, and who said either positive or negative things about them (the word gossip was not used directly, because of the negative connotations associated with this word). She then gave the participants questionnaires to indicate how much they liked that person, and how much social power they thought they had.

The headline finding was that people thought that those who gossip frequently are less likeable, and have less social power, than those who gossip infrequently. Actually, though, there was a bit of spin here (sorry to rant on about this sort of thing again after my last post, but it is annoying how often academics will spin some rather unexciting results into something that looks more interesting).

While it is true that an ANOVA revealed a main effect of gossip frequency, if you look at Tables 1 and 2 in the article (Table 2 is reproduced below) it is clear that this effect was driven solely by one of the four conditions – one in which the imagined acquaintance produced a high frequency of negative gossip. The high-frequency, positive gossip condition was almost identical for both power and likeability scores to the low-frequency, positive gossip condition, and even slightly (though insignificantly) higher than the low-frequency, negative gossip condition:

Gossip frequency
High Low
Gossip valence M SD M SD
Positive 48.44 8.37 48.63 8.27
Negative 37.09 10.59 46.03 10.08

Table 2 (from Farley, 2011). Mean liking ratings as a function of gossip valence and gossip frequency

The problem for Farley is that reading that “people who say nasty things behind others’ backs are disliked” is not nearly as exciting as reading that “people who gossip are disliked” – so she naturally puts the emphasis on the main effect rather than on a more fine-grained, post hoc analysis. This would be interesting because it seems to fly in the face of popular theories such as those of my former colleague Robin Dunbar (whose book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (2004) is well worth a read, for those who have not yet come across it) which hold that gossip is a kind of “relational glue” that helps to hold human societies together.

To be fair, she had also hypothesised in this study that people who frequently spread positive gossip would be more liked than people who infrequently did so, so she is legitimately able to claim that this hypothesis has been refuted by her data. This prediction was based on observational studies that showed that people who occupy a strong position in social networks tend to do a lot of gossip (in line with Dunbar’s theory). The trouble is, I am not sure that her methodology is as well placed as observational methods to refute this idea. Apart from the obvious possible influence of norms against gossip in an interview scenario (which I don’t think simply not mentioning the word gossip would entirely obviate), this is mainly because she asked participants to imagine “people who spent a lot of time talking about other people when they (were) not around”. Pragmatically, this seems to indicate people who spend an abnormal amount of time talking about other people, and abnormal tendencies rarely attract positive judgements. It also perhaps indicates people who talk about people behind their backs relatively more than they talk about them to their face – hardly a quality associated with social power or liveability.

It would have been nice, therefore, to include some sort of control conditions: perhaps considering people who talk “a lot” about something asocial, like a hobby (are they seen as boring, and therefore unlikeable?); or people who criticise other people to their face as well as behind their backs (this may be what a lot of socially powerful people are really like); or people who spread a lot of neutral, objective gossip (those who are central to social networks may spend a lot of time talking about social facts, e.g. who is friends with whom, who has just got married or had a baby, or who is earning lots of money, without necessarily praising or criticising people all the time). Farley would have actually had enough participants to add more conditions, since she originally planned a 2x2x2 between-groups ANOVA (i.e. 8 different conditions), varying target gender (the gender of the imagined person) as well as the frequency and valence of gossip, only to discard target gender because it had no effect. This was a bit of a silly choice for a between-groups condition, though, because she could have just asked participants to imagine both a man and a woman who gossiped a lot/little.

Neither was I convinced by the author’s explanation for why negative gossips were so disliked. She linked this result to the transfer of attitudes recursively (TAR) effect, by which making positive/negative statements about a third party tends to lead an audience to make identically valenced judgements about the speaker. The problem is that her data does not show this, because the frequent positive gossipers do not seem to have had any positive attitudes transferred to them. It seems rather as if participants are (not unreasonably) singling out frequent negative gossip as a reliable indicator of low power/likeability, while not making any particular judgements about the other conditions.

So, on the whole I was not terribly impressed by this little article, I’m afraid; but it is certainly an interesting area and it opened up some empirical ideas for me in terms of testing similar hypotheses in online social networks. Does making positive or negative FB posts make you more or less liked? What about making such posts about public figures who are themselves liked/disliked?

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